Opinion Editorials

Recently, the Department of Veterans Affairs released a sobering reminder of an epidemic that plagues our veterans: the suicide rate among military veterans has increased nearly 32 percent since 2001. Our youngest veterans (ages 18-29) have been hit the hardest and are nearly twice as likely to take their own lives than any other age group. The rate of suicide among veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is approximately 50 percent higher than the rate among the general public, and on average, we lose more than 20 military veterans to suicide each day.

These numbers are unacceptable. That’s why in 2014, I worked to help veterans at risk of suicide due to combat-related psychological trauma by championing legislation named in the honor of Clay Hunt. That bill was signed into law in 2015.

But simply passing legislation is not enough. In order to fulfill the goals of the bill, I have organized a group of mental health experts from the local, state and national levels to implement the “Arizona Clay Hunt Mental Health Pilot Program.” This pilot program authorizes coordination with the VA, state agencies tasked by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and key veterans service organizations (VSOs) like the Arizona Coalition for Military Families and La Frontera. While these individual organizations are already serving our veterans, our pilot program will combine the best of VA’s capabilities and VSOs community outreach to reach more veterans and their families.

Arizona will be the first state in the country to organize this level of collaboration and training so that the VA and the community are working together to combat suicide among veterans.

Many of us know Clay Hunt’s story. As a Marine veteran, he served honorably in Iraq and Afghanistan. After he returned home, Clay suffered for many years with post-traumatic stress disorder and struggled with inadequate care from his local VA hospital. Clay took his own life at the age of 28, a tragedy for his family and our nation. Sadly, this is a story we hear far too often.

Of the almost two dozen military veterans who commit suicide each day on average, two-thirds of them will never have walked through the doors of a VA facility to receive the care they need. In Arizona alone, the VA cannot find or offer any treatment to roughly 450,000 veterans living throughout the state.

That is why the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act and the Arizona Clay Hunt Mental Health Pilot Program are so important and can serve as a model for the rest of the country. This pilot program puts into action the legislation’s intended collaborative partnership between the local VA and the surrounding community to ensure that effective mental health care resources are made available to at-risk veterans wherever they live and work.

A hallmark of this endeavor will be proven, high-quality training for all “Peer Support Specialists” in Arizona. These veterans will receive training to support fellow veterans in their communities in order to help serve their mental health care needs. For the first time in Arizona, everyone working to fight veteran suicides will have compatible high-quality training whether they are a VA employee, a veteran seeking to help a fellow veteran, or a mental health care provider in our community.

Although we have had our differences, Deborah Amdur, the Director of the Phoenix VA, deserves recognition for her leadership in bringing this pilot program to Arizona. Her willingness to leverage existing community resources to help reach every veteran is a welcome change from previous VA leadership. By working with the Tucson and Prescott VA Medical Centers, for example, we can ensure that veterans across the state, including in rural areas, have access to mental health resources.

All of us involved in launching and supporting this initiative strongly believe that the Arizona Clay Hunt Mental Health Pilot Program has the potential to become a national model for combating veterans suicides. This effort, which has received the backing of the VSO community, represents a creative, effective solution that empowers both veterans and civilians to be able to help prevent tragic loss of life.

For far too long, our sons and daughters who selflessly served the nation in wartime have ended their lives prematurely after they returned home. Through the combined and coordinated suicide prevention efforts of VA hospitals, veterans, and mental health providers, Arizona – and hopefully other states across the country – can work together to bring an end to the tragedy of veteran suicides.

###